Oregon Fever Grips America

Albert Bierstadt's 1867 "Emigrants Crossing the Plains" painting shows a romanticized view of the overland journey to Oregon. (Image courtesy National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum)

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Albert Bierstadt's 1867 "Emigrants Crossing the Plains" painting shows a romanticized view of the overland journey to Oregon. (Image courtesy National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum)

The fur traders and missionaries helped set the stage for the massive migrations of settlers to Oregon beginning in the 1840s. But many other factors played roles in the spread of what became known as "Oregon Fever." Events and attitudes conspired to both push and pull restless Americans to the Oregon Country. In the process, these pioneers transformed Oregon and stamped it with their own dreams, values, prejudices, and fears.

A frontier mentality
Many of those who chose to migrate to Oregon had developed something of a habit of moving to new frontiers. It was not unusual, for example, for a family to have moved from an eastern state to Ohio and then on to Missouri before once again looking westward for new opportunities. Most of the future Oregon immigrants were living in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, and Missouri in the early 1840s. Typically, the very wealthy and the very poor did not participate in the exodus. The abject poor could not afford to migrate to Oregon while the wealthy usually saw no need to risk their status and privilege. Those who did make the move had enough money for wagons and provisions but not so much that the comforts of prosperity would hold them back. They were willing to work hard and take risks with the hope of finding their agrarian ideal and leaving their problems behind.

A political cartoon laments unemployment brought on by the Panic of 1837.

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A political cartoon laments unemployment brought on by the Panic of 1837.

Problems and promise
Those problems were multiplying for many midwesterners in the late 1830s and early 1840s. The Panic of 1837 brought economic depression that cascaded into bank failures, currency problems, tightened credit, foreclosed mortgages, unemployment, and falling agricultural prices. Economic hardships often magnified social and marital problems. Health problems added to the suffering, particularly in the Midwest where diseases such as malaria caused thousands of deaths. Many saw their homes and farms swept away in massive flooding along the Missouri, Mississippi, and Ohio rivers. Meanwhile, others looked to escape the moral and political struggles caused by slavery and free blacks. As the challenges mounted, a growing number simply wanted to walk away from the imperfect world they inhabited in search of a better place.

In contrast, the news from Oregon was promising. The reports of Lewis and Clark, the Astorians, John B. Wyeth, William Slacum, and others included narratives of a land rich with possibilities. Missionaries wrote glowing letters to magazines and newspapers and gave lectures and sermons extolling Oregon's virtues. Eager audiences heard of a place that was not so much different as it was better. They were tempted by descriptions of the Willamette Valley that promised a moderate climate, fertile soil, plenty of rain, vast stands of timber, fish virtually jumping out of rivers, a peaceful environment, and a lack of diseases. Missouri senators Lewis Linn and Thomas Hart Benton added to the growing excitement by repeatedly introducing legislation in Congress to grant up to 1,000 acres of land to Oregon settlers. While the bills failed to pass, they did give hope to those who believed that they would be rewarded for their risks. In fact, Oregon's provisional government moved forward with an act in 1843 that gave any white male settler the right to claim free of charge up to 640 acres of land.

A detail of a typical covered wagon used by immigrants to Oregon. (Image courtesy Oregon Department of Transportation - colorized)

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A detail of a typical covered wagon used by immigrants to Oregon. (Image courtesy Oregon Department of Transportation - colorized)

Seeking a better place
The conditions were ready by the early 1840s for Oregon Fever to spread. A trickle of wagons grew into successive waves of wagon trains, particularly through the next decade. About 100 people followed Dr. Elijah White westward in 1842. According to historian John Unruh, 875 immigrants traveled overland to Oregon the next year. By 1847 the number reached 4,000. The California gold rush caused a temporary dip in 1849 as the number of Oregon overland immigrants dropped to 450 (meanwhile overland immigrants to California grew nearly tenfold in 1849 to 25,000). However, the passage of the Oregon Donation Land Act in 1850 helped cause another spike, leading 10,000 people to make the journey in 1852.(1)

The immigrants were much more interested in continuing their culture and way of life than in starting anything particularly new in Oregon. Even faced with the challenges of the overland trail, most tried to hold to societal conventions such as strict gender roles and the observance of the Sabbath. Once in Oregon, they sought to recreate a better version of their lives in the Midwest. Historian Stephen Dow Beckham argues that

The Ermatinger House was built in Oregon City in 1845 reflecting Federal Style architecture. (Oregon State Archives image no. claD0047a)

The Ermatinger House was built in Oregon City in 1845 reflecting Federal Style architecture. (Oregon State Archives image no. claD0047a)

The Oregon Trail pioneers were creatures of habit. They carried their attitudes, prejudices, and ideas as part of their baggage. They were imitators rather than innovators. They attempted, as best they could remember, to recreate the governmental and social institutions they had left behind. They founded schools and academies and erected Federal, Greek Revival, and Gothic Revival buildings to house them—just like at home. Although they saw themselves as stalwart, brave, and independent, they were actually a highly dependent people, demanding righteously that the federal government give them land, survey their claims, guard them from Indians, erect lighthouses, establish postal routes, and construct wagon roads. They saw themselves as makers of history but seldom perceived they were locked into the historical fabric of which they were merely threads.(2)

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Notes:
1. David Alan Johnson, Founding the Far West: California, Oregon, and Nevada, 1840-1890 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) 43.
2. Oregon Secretary of State, Oregon Blue Book 2007-2008, Oregon History Section by Prof. Stephen Dow Beckham (Salem, Oregon, Oregon Secretary of State, 2007) 346.

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An exhibit by the Oregon State Archives - Copyright © 2009